TELEMANN. Brockes Passion. AAM Berlin/Jacobs
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The narrative of Christ's Passion as retold by Barthold Brockes (a dominant figure in early 18th-century German literature) is of such dramatic power that it was set to music by thirteen different composers (including Handel, Keiser and Mattheson). Telemann's version, premiered in April of 1716, became so famous that JS Bach, no immature youngster at the time, copied it out in full 23 years later. René Jacobs has striven to restore this quite extraordinary score to life in all its rich complexity.
Le récit de la Passion du Christ rédigé par Barthold Brockes (figure dominante de la littérature allemande en ce début du XVIIIe siècle) était d'une telle puissance dramatique qu'il fut mis en musique par 13 compositeurs différents (entre autres Haendel, Keiser et Mattheson) ! Créée le 2 avril 1716, la version de Telemann acquit une telle renommée que le déjà très mûr J. S. Bach en ferait une copie intégrale de sa propre main 23 ans après... René Jacobs s'est appliqué à faire revivre dans sa densité première cette partition tout simplement extraordinaire !
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Brocke's text automatically placed the music written for it in the "passion oratorio/opera" genre rather than the "Biblical narrative passion" genre, which, e.g., Bach used for his two surviving passions, and which only encompassed events as told by one of the four Gospels. In Brockes' version of a passion, a tenor "super-evangelist" narrates, in recitative passages, events from all four Gospels' accounts of Jesus' suffering and death. Persons of the Gospel story (Jesus, Peter, Pilate, etc.) have dialogue passages, also in recitative; a chorus sing passages of the crowd; and poetic texts, sometimes in the form of arias, sometimes that of chorales (hymn-like short choral pieces), reflect on the events.
Whatever we may think of Brocke's passion poetry today really doesn't matter, because it struck his contemporaries as one of the greatest pieces of religious poetry since Dante until Klopstock wrote his "Der Messias" between 1748 and 1773 (the early parts of which Telemann set to music as well). Composers literally queued up around the corner to set Brockes' text to music: Reinhard Keiser (1712), Georg Philipp Telemann (1716), George Frideric Handel (composed sometime around Telemann's and Mattheson's version and premiered in Hamburg in 1719), Johann Mattheson (1718), Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1725), Johann Friedrich Fasch (1723) and several others.
Handel certainly wrote some brilliant music for his Brockes Passion. So much so, in fact, that he regularly pilfered the music for many of his later works once safely in England where nobody had heard the piece. As such, most Handel aficionados will know large parts of Handel's passion from Athalia, Giulio Cesare, etc. Telemann's setting, on the other hand, comes as a real revelation. While it was tremendously successful alongside Handel's setting in Hamburg - to the point where performances later in the century would be pasticcios incorporating "the best of" Telemann and Handel with the other odd composer thrown in - its performances gradually petered out in the early 19th century. While Handel was never entirely forgotten, Telemann definitely was until close to our time, so this is one of the first recordings of the complete work since the early 19th century.
It is immediately striking that Telemann - like Handel - pulled out all the stops, musically speaking, when composing their versions. Yet while Handel chose to show off the dramatic skills he had picked up in Italy, Telemann chose to compete in originality and modern style. It seems odd to say that a piece written in 1716 should sound "modern." I say it in the sense that Telemann's music often comes surprisingly close to the "gallant" style of Gluck's operas from the 1740's to 60's. The most strikingly original single part is undoubtedly the overture, which seems to foretell the opening of Wagner's Rheingold with it's E-flat major pedal point chord going on forever. Telemann also starts on a pedal point note in pianissimo, but he then adds the 7th and 9th notes against it in one long chord where one doesn't know if one's listening to Stockhausen or Telemann until the dissonances are resolved and a solo oboe enters. By repeating this process three times, louder every time, Telemann achieves a strikingly modern build-up of sound like Wagner's in Das Rheingold or in a Bruckner symphony. Then, after the slow build-up, a freakishly fast passage for solo flute pops up, making one think "that's what Galway would sound like on PCP" and after.... well, I won't be a killjoy and give all the action away.
To those only familiar with Bach's passions I will say this: Don't expect this music to sound too much like Bach. Nonetheless, Bach admired Telemann's setting so much that he personally copied the entire score and presented the complete piece in Leipzig in 1729 (though he also personally copied most of Handel's Brocke's Passion too). Yes, he and Telemann were buddies, but Bach wasn't known to be a sentimentalist or someone who'd flatter those in higher music positions (which Hamburg definitely was in comparison to Leipzig at that time). Telemann's music isn't even terribly reminiscent of Handel's later operas and oratorios (he knew Handel personally as well).
Another element in differentiating Telemann's and Bach's passions was in which context they were used. The Telemann Passions were (unlike Bach's) not written for and used in the context of a separate Good Friday Vespers liturgical service, but rather in the regular church services for the five main churches in Hamburg for the Sundays of Lent (except for Oculi Sunday). Ulrich Leisinger, states: "The Hamburg Passions of the late eighteenth century are relatively short, lasting little more than an hour in performance, because they were used in regular Sunday services in Lent, not in the context of a separate Passion service, as in the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig."
Telemann's secco recitatives are far fewer in number than in Bach and Handel, his arias are generally shorter, and there are fewer and more simple chorales than in Bach. All of this serves to give the passion story a dynamic forward drive and a dramatic intensity that is very different from Bach's passions or Handel's oratorios. Buy the recording so you can hear for yourselves - describing the musical effect in words can't be done briefly and would be a waste of words anyway.
All of the performances are nothing short of splendid, so it would be a waste of time to point to one singer or the other for merit. They all sing magnificently; with a strongly emotional sense of drama when needed and with resigned pensiveness when that is called for. The orchestra is great and Rene Jacob's tempi couldn't be better.
Technically, the recording is great too, with just the right amount of resonance without anything getting lost in a muddle of sound.
Shortly put: Buy this album - you won't regret it.